When the German troops invaded Belarus in Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Belarusian civilians were met with a choice: collaborate with the Germans or resist. If Belarusians collaborated, their lives would not be in danger, and sometimes the quality of life for active Nazi collaborators would be better than the average Belarusian’s. If people chose to join the resistance, they would put not only their own lives on the line, but the lives of their families, their communities and villages. The Einsatzgruppen and the SS (Schutzstaffel) were notorious for their barbaric acts against civilians, to demoralise and prevent people from joining the resistance.

One of the main ways of resisting the Germans was for civilians to join the Partisans, irregular military groups scattered across the Soviet Union, particularly in the thick forests of Belarus. Joining the partisans meant living in the forests and swamps, through the dead of winter and the heat of summer, constantly on the lookout for Germans.

When Jews managed to escape from ghettos, they joined the Partisans, but this was not always easy, like in the case of the Minsk Ghetto. Firstly, escape meant not being caught by the Germans or one of their collaborators, which would mean torture and death. Soviet Partisan units took new members only if they had a weapon, otherwise escapees were just another mouth to feed. There were thousands of partisans across the Soviet Union, and though some Jews did join, they sometimes faced antisemitism and discrimination and were in some instances killed. (check Pioneers and Partisans book)

Some Jews who were able to escape the Germans joined Jewish partisan groups. The most famous Jewish partisan group was led by the Bielski brothers, in the forest near Navahrudak (or Nowogródek in Polish). The unit was led by the eldest brother Tuvia Bielski, who had been trained in the Polish army. He made his unit a refuge for those who managed to escape the Holocaust atrocities committed by the Germans.

Credit: Unknown author, Public domain, Enhanced by The Together Plan through Remini, via Wikimedia Commons

By 1944, Tuvia’s unit provided shelter to around 1300 Jews. There were other Jewish partisan units, like one led by Shalom Zorin, whose camp in the forest specifically provided refuge to those who were not able to fight, many of whom were children and the elderly from the Minsk Ghetto. The Bielski partisans, along with other Jewish partisan units, were often left to fend for themselves. The local population did not help them, sometimes because of antisemitism, but very often because they feared the violent reprisals by the Germans. Hundreds of Belarusian villages were burnt as collective punishment to instil fear in the population, which deterred them from helping the resistance movements.

Navahrudak is in Western Belarus – it was part of Poland before 1939, where there was a great variety of identities. The Jewish Bielski partisans fought in the forest that used to be Polish territory, which then became Soviet and is now in Belarus. The Bielski partisans story has been immortalised in the 2008 film Defiance (starring Daniel Craig as Tuvia). After the war the Soviet government closed their archives and did not allow these important stories to become known. This story is just one of the few surviving moments of Jews regaining power and fighting back.

The vast majority of Soviet Jews were living in the westernmost regions of the country, and most of them were quickly trapped. They had no idea of what awaited them. Between August 1939 and June 1941, while Germany and the Soviet Union were in effect allies, the Soviet press had remained silent about Nazi attacks on Jews in Poland. German officers were amused at how uninformed some Jews appeared to be.

From The Unknown Black Book – The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories Edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Ilya Altman